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Why the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 has the makings of an NHL all-star weekend show-stealer

By pitting some of the best American and Canadian women's players against each other in a 20-minute 3-on-3 event, the stage has been set for a contest that will be the talk of NHL all-star weekend.

Annie Pankowski had two feelings when she received the email to tell her she’d be participating at NHL all-star weekend. The first, of course, was excitement. The day she found out, shortly after Christmas, she was surrounded by family and friends and was able to tell them about the opportunity with which she was being presented. Being able to share that news with those close to her meant the world.

The second emotion, though, was nervousness about her selection. The reason? “I didn't know exactly what I was doing or if I was going to have to try to skate like Kendall Coyne,” Pankowski said, joking that she’d never be able to replicate her Team USA teammate and fellow PWHPA member's 14.346 lap in the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills’ Fastest Skater event. “But it was very exciting and I'm super grateful for the opportunity.”

Pankowski will be one of 20 players participating in what the NHL has dubbed Elite Women’s 3-on-3, a 20-minute contest that will pit a group of American national team players against their Canadian national team rivals and be televised during the Saturday event. Alongside Pankowski will be Team USA notables such as Coyne Schofield, Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel and Lee Stecklein. The Canadian squad will feature the likes of Marie-Philip Poulin, Rebecca Johnston, Sarah Nurse, Natalie Spooner and Meghan Agosta. The teams were selected by the NHL in conjunction with former American and Canadian Olympians Cammi Granato, Angela Ruggiero, Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Hayley Wickenheiser.

The 3-on-3 event comes on the heels of the show-stealing performance put on by the women who participated at the 2019 event. Johnston, who demonstrated the puck control relay last year, said it shone a big spotlight on the talent the women’s game possesses. She believes the new event presents a much greater opportunity for the women competing to put their gifts on display, however.

“The 3-on-3 is a little new for us,” Johnston said. “We don't generally do 3-on-3 full ice a lot, usually in overtime it's 4-on-4. But this is definitely going to open up the ice, allow us to use our speed and be a little more creative and use the space to do some fun things.”

Adding to the intrigue, to be sure, is that there will be the international flair to the proceedings. Though the majority of the cross-border rivals have taken up the same cause as members of the PWHPA – all but Agosta and USA’s Alex Carpenter, who plays for former CWHL and current Russian Women’s League team KRS Vanke Rays Shenzhen, were at the organization’s recent Toronto event – Pankowski hesitated to say that has at all cooled the temperature of the USA-Canada rivalry.

“For some people it has, but for others, it's still just as fresh and just as intense,” she said. “It's hard to speak for everyone, but for me, every time we have an opportunity to play Canada, you never want to lose, even if it is for fun or an All-Star Game.”

Speaking of which, Pankowski said fans should expect to see a far different level of competitiveness than what is usually seen during the NHL’s All-Star Game.

“Most of the men's All-Star Game is kind of lackadaisical. They're not really there to win. It’s kind of there for them to hang out and show their skill,” Pankowski said. “For us, I'm not so sure it's going to be taken that way. Anytime it's the US versus Canada, it's intense, and we're going to want to win. It'll be interesting to see the intensity of the game, but it's definitely an awesome opportunity to showcase our skill and competitive spirit and show how much it means to us.”

Added Johnston: “People will expect us to be playing hard, playing competitive, showcasing what we have, but we obviously really want to win. Both teams will be coming out and playing their best hockey. Sometimes at the NHL All-Star Game, it's fun and they take it a little more light than we will that weekend.”

No matter which group of national team players ultimately walks away with the 3-on-3 crown, though, the feeling among all involved is that the exposure alone makes this a win for the women’s game.

“This is where all hockey fans' eyes are at the moment, that (all-star) week,” Pankowski said. “They want to see the NHL players, they want to see the best of the best. It’s only fair that the best of the women get to be there, as well, and get to show our side of the game and the way we play and that it's just as entertaining. It's an opportunity to kind of grab some fans on that side of the aisle.”

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